Any admirer of Beckett’s plays and prose can see that he was a poet, but could he write poems? On the basis of this sumptuously annotated edition, the first to print a completely reliable text and to document fully the relationship between the poems and Beckett’s other writings, the answer has to be “Only sometimes.” Beckett’s later deprecations of his youthful efforts, Whoroscope (1930) and Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates (1935), are no more than just, yet there was no period of his life at which he was not writing poetry; indeed, the last thing he composed was a poem, “Comment dire” (“What is the Word”), written little over a year before his death. The English title points to his lifelong search for an adequate verbal expression of thought, baffled by the elusive nature of language itself.
Whoroscope comes just three years after Joyce’s Pomes Penyeach, four after Pound’s Personae, and in the same year as Eliot’s Ash-Wednesday. Like those writers, Beckett had a cosmopolitan mind, which had absorbed the classical epics, Dante, and nineteenth-century French literature, as well as substantial portions of the philosophical canon. Modernist assumptions about the difficulty, allusiveness, and obscurity proper to high art were all around him, to the detriment of many of his early poems which are crammed with arcane vocabulary, smugly clever, and determined not to please. There is none of the feeling that one has, usually with Eliot and sometimes with Pound, that the unattractive surface may reward patient frequentation. Although Beckett’s later English poems are much freer and more direct, their very simplicity can have a threadbare texture, as in this complete poem from 1984–85:
Go end there
One fine day
Where never till then
Till as much as to say
No matter where
No matter when
In their notes, Lawlor and Pilling relate this to Beckett’s last extended piece of prose, Stirrings Still (1988), but anyone who turns up that text will realize the ways in which the idea behind this painfully slight piece takes on greater richness there.
Yet any impression of Beckett’s attitude to poetry as sterile or etiolated would be completely mistaken. He responded to it with intense emotion, and as a highly musical person relished the sound-palette of poems he loved. Anne Atik, in her beautiful book How It Was: A Memoir of Samuel Beckett (2001), recalls her husband, the painter Avigdor Arikha, and Beckett reciting from memory great swathes of Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Yeats, Hölderlin, Goethe, Heine, Dante, Petrarch, Leopardi, Verlaine, and Apollinaire, among others—the two of them often standing up at particularly moving lines or stanzas. Beckett’s poetic successes, in any genre, are matters of musical cadence, of the rich interplay of sounds: they obey the Imagist prescription to compose in the rhythm of the musical phrase, not in that of the metronome.
With Beckett’s poetry, as with his prose, the major breakthrough came when he began writing in French in the later 1930s. The editors have an admirable comment on the difference in style from his English poems, noting that he chose “to adopt a deliberate simplification and refinement of means and method, reducing (if not wholly abandoning) allusions, exploring the self-sustaining subtleties of syntax without necessarily emphasising the verbal surface and without surrendering unexpected juxtapositions, and contenting himself for the most part with a single and singular focus.” This bore fruit, among other ways, in his translations, of himself and of other poets, which on the whole seem to me his best work in this genre. In the late 1970s, he wrote a number of verbal snapshots which he called mirlitonnades; a mirliton is a toy flute, and vers de mirliton is French for “doggerel.” Here is one of them:
imagine si ceci
un jour ceci
un beau jour
si un jour
un beau jour ceci
We are asked, as in the prose text Imagination Morte Imaginez (1965), to imagine what is unimaginable yet can only be imagined, since by definition when it is experienced it will entail the end of imagination. The turning of “ceci” into “cessait” is a masterstroke, yet the fact that “si ceci” contains when read aloud the English word “cease” is hardly less brilliant. (Compare the title “Mort de A. D.,” a bilingual pun commemorating Beckett’s friend Arthur Darley.) I also wonder whether the “si” in “si ceci” is to be understood, not as “if” but as “yes,” the French alternative to oui when one wants to insist on something that one’s interlocutor has doubted or questioned—as if “un beau jour ceci” had been followed by the reader’s objecting “Ceci—what, surely not all this?” “Oh yes,” the poem insists, “this.” For all its brevity, this is a much richer poem than “Brief Dream” in texture.
Beckett was equally brilliant in translating other poets (although their originals are not printed in this edition). His work on the Anthology of Mexican Poetry (1958) is well represented here, but, as I have no Spanish, I will pass that over. His translation of Rimbaud’s “Le Bateau Ivre,” made in 1932 and presumed lost until its rediscovery and publication in 1976, is justly famous, but it is bettered, I think, by that of Apollinaire’s “Zone” (1950), which displays remarkable skill in finding equivalents for the rhymes of the original and in catching its tonal diversity:
It is the fair lily that we all revere
It is the torch burning in the wind its auburn hair
It is the rosepale son of the mother of grief
It is the tree with the world’s prayers ever in leaf
(C’est le beau lys que tous nous cultivons
C’est la torche aux cheveux roux que n’éteint pas le vent
C’est le fils pâle et vermeil de la douloureuse mère
C’est l’arbre toujours touffu de toutes les prières)
“Burning/auburn” is a tiny, telling example of Beckett’s exquisite ear. Anne Atik records how Beckett would recite from Apollinaire’s “Le Chanson du Mal-Aimé,” chanting or crooning the lines, quite unlike the uninflected way he insisted his own dramatic dialogue should be spoken. He was well placed to appreciate “Zone,” which is like The Waste Land crossed with Joyce’s Portrait. But we also find him translating Mallarmé, Char, Eluard, and Jarry, among others.
Lawlor and Pilling tell us that, at the head of the manuscript of “What is the Word,” Beckett wrote “Keep! for end,” so I have done just that. If the title is taken as a question (but there is no question mark), the answer may be the poem’s first word, “folly.” Building itself up bit by bit, the following sentence, or rather sequence, emerges: “folly for to need to seem to glimpse afaint afar away over there what.” On “afaint afar away” Lawlor and Pilling compare the ending of Finnegans Wake: “A way a lone a last a loved a long the.” This seems to me a rare misdirection in their generally splendid notes. Beckett’s early closeness to Joyce did not last. Although he intended a compliment when he wrote of Work in Progress (later Finnegans Wake) that “Here form is content, content is form. . . . His writing is not about something; it is that something itself, ” one may reasonably object that writing which is “not about something” risks being about nothing. Granted, Joyce is an influence on Beckett’s early fiction, particularly Dream of Fair to Middling Women, written in 1932 but published only posthumously, and More Pricks Than Kicks (1934). Finnegans Wake was not published until 1939; Beckett’s next work would be Watt, which marks a shift away from Joyce. He long refused to reprint More Pricks, and was content not to publish Dream when he could easily have done so. His love-hate relationship to “the word” is worlds away from Joyce’s careless exuberance; the relentless paring down of language that characterizes Beckett’s later art bears witness to an agony that Joyce never knew. “You must say words,” observes the narrator of The Unnamable, “as long as there are any.” Beckett’s poems trace in miniature his lifelong inability, despite his best efforts, to keep silent.